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Justinian and the Second Coming

In Constantinople, in the year 527, Justinian the First succeeded his uncle and became emperor — with the title of Augustus. As he saw it he was emperor of the entire Roman Empire – God's empire. His wife, a former actress, Theodora, who had considerable influence over him, was crowned Augusta.

In 529, Justinian published a constitution, his Code of Civil Law, which contained laws against heresy and united church and state. Anyone not connected to his church was declared not a citizen. This was the trinitarian Roman church. Justinian saw Arian and Monophysite Christians as heretics. As the defender of Christian Orthodoxy, he wanted to wipe out the last of Greco-Roman paganism. He saw it as his responsibility to create one state, one church and one law. As a Christian he believed in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and in preparation for this he saw it as his responsibility to restore and unify the empire and to liberate areas ruled by the Arian Christians.

Relations between the Vandals (in North Africa) and Constantinople's empire had normalized after the death of the Vandal leader Genseric. In June 533, launched his aggressions against them: a fleet of 500 ships with 15,000 soldiers Justinian's forces. The Vandals are said to have become less fierce at warfare, to have softened "amidst the richs of Africa" and their fighting "ill-suited" in confronting Constantinople's veterans. Justinian's general, Belisarius, has been described as doing well in not offending those Roman subjects that the Vandals ruled and that the Vandals were "weakened by the hostility of their Roman subjects. Belisarius was victorious by after six months. Moorish tribes were watching on the sidelines. Constantinople's power in North Africa hardly reached beyond the old Vandal kingdom. The Moorish tribes of the interior were not about to accept imperial rule, and were to rise up in rebellion. it would be more than a decade before rule by Justinian's empire would be firmly established in North Africa, and in the meantime Emperor Justinian had the Ostrogoths in Italy that he had moved against a couple of years after defeating the Vandals.

The Theodoric had died in 526, and his alliance with the Vandals was ineffective. The Ostrogoths had stood by as Belisarius invaded North Africa, the Ostrogoths appeasing the Byzantine Empire by allowing Justinian's navy to use its ports. And now it was Italy's turn. In 536 Justinians forces landed near Naples, and his General Belisarius conquered that city.

The Ostrogoths were threatened also by the trinitarian Franks to their north, but the Ostrogoths neutralized the Franks with a bribe, gold proving stronger than Frankish loyalty to the cause pursued by Justinian.

The Ostrogoths abandoned Rome, Constantinople's army arriving there in December. The Pope went over to the side of Justinian. In March 537 an Ostrogoth army arrived and began a siege of the city. The Ostrogoths cut Rome's outside supply of water — the beginning of the end of Rome's great aqueducts and its luxurious public baths. The Ostrogoths tried storming Rome's walls but failed, as the city's defenders in one area threw statues down upon the attackers. The Ostrogoths had no navy, and Justinian shippied food and reinforcements up the Tiber river and into Rome. Justinian's navy was able to blockade food from reaching the Ostrogoths. A little more than a year after the siege of Rome had begun the hungry Ostrogoths lifted their siege of Rome and withdrew to the north. There the Ostrogoths and their fellow Arian Christians, the Burgundians, blockaded the city of Milan and reduced its inhabitants to eating dogs and mice. And when the Ostrogoths and Burgundians took Milan they massacred all the city's adult males, estimated at 300,000, and the Burgundians took the city's women as slaves.

By 539, food production and distribution in Italy had diminished to the extent that many were dying of malnutrition. Cannibalism appeared. Unburied corpses littered the countryside. Taking advantage of Italy's vulnerability, the Franks invaded Italy in search of plunder, slaughtering along the way.

In 540 Justinian faced renewed warfare with the Sassanid Empire, and he sent instructions to his general to make peace in Italy by offering the Ostrogoths territory north of the Po River in Italy in exchange for Justinian keeping all of Italy south of the Po. The Ostrogoths agreed. Meanwhile, Justinian's generals south of the Po River had taken advantage of their power to plunder the Italians, which turned many Italians against Justinian's effort there.

In 541 there was renewed fighting with the renewed war and troop movements, and bubonic plague appeared in Constantinople's empire. It was noticed first in the Egyptian harbor town of Pelusium, which had a huge rat population, as did much of Europe. It was deadly bacteria that spread with flea bites. Fleas didn't travel far, but they rode on rats. Rats didn't travel far in their lifetime, but humans did, and humans transported infected rats. The plague spread to Alexandria and moved on to Syria, to Palestine and to Constantinople, where it lasted four months and killed an estimated 40 percent of the city's population before it died from a dearth of available hosts. The emperor, Justinian, was infected and seemed on the verge of death, but he was one of the lucky ones: the flea bites and disease was not too much for his immune system and he recovered.

The Ostrogoths, under a new leader, Totila, resumed their war against Justinian's forces, and they pushed these forces southward, bypassing Rome and capturing Naples in the spring of 543 the Ostrogoths captured Naples, with Totila treating the city's inhabitants humanely. The Ostrogoths advanced from town to town. The inhabitants of the town of Isaurius sided with the approaching Ostrogoths, and the town's garrison, loyal to Justinian's cause and to Catholicism, slaughtered them.

In early 546 another Ostrogoth siege of Rome began. The city's inhabitants went from eating nettles, dogs and rodents to starvation. In December a gate into Rome was opened from within, and Totila's forces rushed into the city. Justinian's troops and a few senators fled through another gate. Around 500 of the civilians remaining in the city took refuge in churches while 60 of them are said to have been killed. Totila went to pray at St. Peter's Cathedral. He then had Rome destroyed, including a portion of the city's great walls.

Again naval superiority allowed Justinian to land troops in Italy, and his forces reoccupied Rome and slopped together some stones as wall repair. In 549 Totila and the Ostrogoths returned and began a third and final siege of the city. Bloody battles were fought outside the city and the following year some of Justinian's unpaid soldiers sided with Totila and opened the city gates. Totila's army swept through the city, killing and looting while, on the orders of Totila, sparing women. Expecting the nobles and the remainder of the garrison to flee as soon as the walls were taken, Totila set traps along the roadways to neighboring towns that were not yet under his control. Many Romans were caught by ambush while fleeing Rome. Only a few, including Diogenes, the Roman commander, escaped Totila’s takeover of Rome and his roadside ambush.

With Rome captured, Totila decided to rebuilt, repopulate and defend it against future attacks by Justinian, but his success was illusory. In 551 the superiority of Justinian's navy allowed his forces to return and obtain an upper hand in parts of Italy, including Rome. In 552, Justinian's forces seized two strongholds on the southern coast of Spain. In 554 what was called the Gothic War (535-54) was at an end. The Trinity version of Christianity had won against Arianism, violence having decided a matter of theology — taken, of course, as God's doing.  (Map of Constantinople's Empire, 600 AD)

But again, there was no real success. Justinian's warring in Italy had drained Constantinople's resources and weakened Justinian's ability to protect his empire's northern and eastern frontiers. From the steppes west of the Don River (in today's Russia) came the Bulgars, who raided, ravaged towns and farms north of Constantinople and left again. From grasslands north of Constantinople's empire, and north of the Danube River, Slavic tribes (speaking an Indo-European language) invaded Constantinople's (the Byzantine) empire. Some of the Slavs turned from plunder to seizing lands and settling into farming in sparsely populated areas and on what had been wasteland. The Slavs were followed by those who in theory are considered to be a Mongolian people – Avars – traditionally herders, bow-legged from the constant riding on horseback. Like the Huns before them, they fought in cavalry formation, were organized and disciplined and were interested in plunder.

By the time of Justinian's death in 565, at age 83 or thereabouts, much of Constantinople's imperial wealth had been spent. Justinian's successor, his nephew, who took the title Justin II, inherited an empty treasury, and he discontinued Justinian's practice of buying off potential enemies. He halted payments to the Avars, ending a truce with the Avars that had existed since 558. United with the Avars were a Germanic tribal people called Lombards who had been moving south from around the Elbe River since the 400s. In 567, north of the empire near what today is Belgrade, they with the nomadic Avars annihilated a Germanic tribe there: the Gepids. The Lombards moved on, across the Alps. In 568 they reached Milan, and soon they were in control of territory between Ravenna and Rome.

The Lombards were Arian Christians, but in Spain the Visigoth king, Reccared (ruling from Toledo), wanted to cement an alliance with Constantinople, and in 589 he renounced his Arian Christianity in favor of trinitarianism — a victory for trinitarianism without war. But the Roman Empire had not returned to its former united entity that Justinian had wanted it to be. The bloodshed and misery created by Justinian's ambition back in the early 530s had been futility.

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.